Africa File

The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.  {{authorBox.message}}

Loading...

Loading...

Africa File: Islamic State Affiliate Attempts to Assassinate Nigerian President

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

To receive the Africa File via email, please subscribe here

Key Takeaway: The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) likely attempted to assassinate the Nigerian president. The group claimed responsibility for a December 29 vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in central Nigeria. This attack marks ISWAP’s first documented attempt to assassinate Nigeria’s head of state and its first VBIED detonation outside of northeastern Nigeria. These inflections continue an expansion of ISWAP activity in central Nigeria, including its first attacks in the Federal Capital Territory in 2022. ISWAP poses a growing threat to central Nigeria and the country’s capital, Abuja, and will likely continue to escalate operations in early 2023—which could include pursuing international targets in Abuja and attempting to destabilize the country as the February 2023 general elections approach.

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: January 2023

Source: Kathryn Tyson.

Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) detonated a bomb targeting the Nigerian president in central Nigeria. Militants *detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) near the Ohinoyi Palace in Okene, Kogi State, on the morning of December 29. The explosion killed at least four people. ISWAP claimed the attack on January 2, saying it targeted the “apostate Nigerian tyrant”—a label likely referring to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.[1] Buhari was in Okene to commission a hospital near the palace on the morning of the attack. ISWAP may have intended to kill Buhari but mistimed the explosion. Alternately, the timing of the attack may have been intended to threaten Buhari while attempting to avoid provoking a large Nigerian military response.

This attack indicates that the ISWAP cell based in Kogi State has increasing ambition and sophisticated capabilities. The Kogi cell is ISWAP’s most active cell outside of northeastern Nigeria. It carried out at least 10 *attacks across Kogi and neighboring states in 2022, mostly ambushing security force convoys, attacking police posts, and detonating improvised explosive devices in civilian areas. The December 29 attack is the Kogi cell’s first use of a VBIED. The attack is also ISWAP’s first use of a VBIED outside of ISWAP’s strongholds in northeastern Nigeria and the group’s first demonstrated effort to target a head of state.  

The Kogi cell may attempt to use its VBIED capabilities in Nigeria’s capital region or even the capital itself. ISWAP increased activity around Abuja in 2022. ISWAP carried out a complex prison break in the Federal Capital Territory in July 2022 that freed hundreds of prisoners. The Kogi cell’s primary area of operations is roughly 125 miles from the capital, and the group was likely *involved in this July 2022 prison break, showing it can assist operations near Abuja. The cell has now shown it can manufacture VBIEDs that it could use in future attacks. ISWAP was also likely behind a credible threat that led to the evacuation of nonessential personnel and family from the US embassy in Abuja in October 2022. The Okene attack and the October embassy threat demonstrate ISWAP is working to penetrate higher security areas to attack high-level Nigerian and international targets. Attacks in Abuja could be especially destabilizing as the February 2023 Nigerian general elections approach.

Figure 2. ISWAP Attacks in Central Nigeria

Source: Liam Karr.

The Kogi cell will escalate operations in early 2023. The cell may be reactivating after a lull in activity during record-high seasonal flooding in its area of operations. ISWAP and the global Islamic State organization may also be increasing propaganda focus on the cell. IS media circulated a video of fighters in Kogi pledging allegiance to the new IS caliph on December 5. This pledge is the first from an ISWAP cell outside northeastern Nigeria. IS media then disseminated the cell’s first attack claim since October, on December 23.[2] ISWAP and IS could encourage attacks on higher-value targets or seek more spectacular attacks to highlight in its propaganda. ISWAP could seek to coordinate such attacks with a global IS revenge campaign in response to the death of the group’s leader in October. ISWAP has participated in previous revenge campaigns. A revenge campaign could coincide with an attack surge during the holy month of Ramadan in March and April 2023. IS has coordinated Ramadan attack campaigns in the past.

The Kogi cell highlights ISWAP’s growing threat outside of northeastern Nigeria. ISWAP has become more internationally minded and capable than Boko Haram, in part due to the benefits of participating in the IS network. ISWAP expanded its operations from its havens in northeastern Nigeria in 2022 and claimed attacks in 10 states. The group generated a credible terror threat to Abuja and the US embassy for the first time since 2017. Its connections to the Islamic State network also bring it millions of dollars and veteran trainers. Its Islamic State links further encourage the group to attack high-level targets, acting as the Islamic State’s vanguard for *global jihad on the African continent.

ISWAP’s expansion strains the already overstretched Nigerian security forces. The Nigerian government also faces a banditry crisis in the northwest, a separatist insurgency in the southeast, and farmer-herder tensions across the country. These overlapping security challenges feed each other. Salafi-jihadi factions and other armed groups may pursue limited cooperation, multiplying their capabilities and geographic reach. An unstable Nigeria threatens the future of West Africa and the entire continent. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and will overtake the US as the third most populous country in the world by 2050. It also has the continent’s largest GDP and plays a key role in regional peacekeeping efforts.

For additional analysis on ISWAP in Nigeria, see “A Global Terror Threat Rises in Nigeria” by Emily Estelle Perez and Liam Karr and “Islamic State Prison Break Signals Expanding Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Nigeria” by Liam Karr


[1] SITE Intelligence Group, “ISWAP Claims Car Bombing Outside Palace of Okene Ruler, in Nigeria's Kogi State,” January 2, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “ISWAP Claims Killing 4 Nigerian Policemen in Rare Attack in Kogi State,” December 23, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

View Citations

Africa File: Burkina Faso Coup Signals Deepening Governance and Security Crisis in the Sahel  

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

To receive the Africa File via email, please subscribe here

Key Takeaway: Burkina Faso’s latest coup on September 30 indicates that the governance and security crisis in West Africa’s Sahel region continues to deepen. Salafi-jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State have exploited cyclical violence and anti-government grievances to root themselves in local communities and steadily expand in the Sahel over the past decade. The fallout from the Burkina Faso coup, like the 2020 and 2021 coups in Mali, will likely further reduce counterterrorism pressure and worsen the conditions that lead to Salafi-jihadi expansion.

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: September 2022

Source: Kathryn Tyson.

Members of the Burkinabe military overthrew its government for the second time in 2022. Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba took power on January 24 as part of a junta that suspended Burkina Faso’s constitution, dissolved the government, and arrested President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Capt. Ibrahim Traore overthrew Damiba’s government in a similar fashion nine months later on September 30. Damiba resigned on October 2, after several days of isolated skirmishes between pro- and anti-coup forces in the capital.

Salafi-jihadi activity in Burkina Faso helped create conditions for the coups, and major attacks preceded both military takeovers. Salafi-jihadi groups have rapidly expanded across Burkina Faso since 2016, causing massive internal displacement. The insurgency, which began in part as a reaction to security force abuses, has also led security forces and local ethnically based militias to increase violence against civilians—a dynamic that allows Salafi-jihadi groups to appeal to and impose themselves on vulnerable populations.

Two major militant attacks in northern Burkina Faso that altogether killed over 200 people in June and November 2021 sparked the protests that set conditions for the coup. Lt. Col. Damiba’s junta subsequently failed to prevent large-scale massacres on Burkina Faso’s periphery, where militants now hold more territory than they did when Damiba took power. This lack of progress,* alongside inter-military power struggles, led to the September coup. The coup occurred less than a week after militants attacked a supply convoy in northern Burkina Faso, killing at least 37 Burkinabe soldiers and civilians and wounding dozens more.

Burkina Faso’s latest coup comes as Salafi-jihadi militants consolidate control in their core terrain and spread to new areas. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) is active across Mali and Burkina Faso. JNIM is currently engaged in campaigns to isolate* population centers and implement its version of shari’a through shadow governance in rural areas. The Islamic State Sahel Province, more commonly known as Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), operates primarily in the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. ISGS aims to consolidate control of population centers it has besieged* to carve out a territorial holding. Both groups are also taking advantage of growing local grievances and security vacuums, especially along Burkina Faso’s borders, to expand into the littoral Gulf of Guinea states.

Figure 2. Salafi-Jihadi Areas of Operation in the Sahel

Note: JNIM is Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen. ISGS is Islamic State Greater Sahara. For an interactive map of JNIM and ISGS’s area of operations, click here.

Source: Brian Carter.

Neighboring Mali has also faced increased instability following successive coups that have significantly weakened regional counterterrorism efforts. Members of the military overthrew the civilian government in August 2020. The coup followed months of nonviolent protests demanding the resignation of the Malian president due to corruption and instability stemming from the jihadist insurgency. A group of officers then overthrew the transitional government in May 2021 to consolidate its power.

The junta has taken an aggressive approach to affirming its sovereignty, leading to splits from its regional partners. Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel joint counterterrorism force in May 2022, formalizing an ongoing lack of cross-border coordination. The junta recently angered its Ivorian neighbors and other regional partners by imprisoning 49 Ivorian peacekeepers it accused of being “mercenaries” in July 2022. Poor regional counterterrorism cooperation allows militants to maintain support zones in border areas, enabling cross-border operations and recruitment.

The junta’s takeover and decision to hire Russian Wagner* Group mercenaries in 2021 quickly soured relations with France and other European countries. The deteriorating partnership accelerated and expanded the planned withdrawal of French forces and some European special operations troops from Mali in August 2022. The Malian junta also imposed airspace restrictions on the remaining European forces in the United Nations peacekeeping mission, which has caused these forces to suspend operations and could trigger their withdrawal. Departing European partners are taking critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and medevac services with them. The loss of these capabilities gives militants increased freedom of movement and likely increases Malian army casualties.

The arrival of Wagner mercenaries also increased violence against civilians in conflict-affected areas of Mali. The junta reportedly pays Wagner Group $10 million per month to provide military training and protection for senior Malian officials. Wagner’s presence has increased the number and severity of violent incidents against civilians in its area of operations, which is spreading across Mali.

The new Burkinabe junta will likely seek different security partners, which could have similar effects on counterterrorism efforts as did the Malian coups. Russian information operations in the Sahel have exacerbated long-standing anti-colonial grievances against France and boosted pro-Russian sentiment. These trends were evident among coup supporters in Burkina Faso. The new junta leaders and influential Burkinabe politicians say they will diversify Burkina Faso’s security partners, including seeking a closer relationship with Russia. Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has also openly supported Traore, the September coup’s leader.

One of the junta’s first major actions was anti-French. It falsely accused* France of sheltering ousted President Damiba, sparking protestors to attack the French embassy and a French government-run cultural center in Ouagadougou. Protestors also attacked a French cultural center in Burkina Faso’s second largest city, Bobo Dioulasso. The new junta will likely continue to distance itself from France. This policy could restrict French support* and special forces based near Burkina Faso’s capital—and joint operations with Burkinabe forces.

Increased Russian involvement—especially the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries—would likely challenge international counterterrorism support as it did in Mali. US intelligence assessed in July 2022 that the Wagner Group was mostly likely to expand into Burkina Faso as its next country. The US State Department spokesperson said the US had not seen any evidence of Burkinabe negotiations with Wagner but warned the new junta against seeking support from the group on October 4. Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine makes greater Wagner Group activity in West Africa unlikely, however. Wagner Group may already be encountering problems paying its forces in Mali and said on October 5 that all new recruits will be sent to Ukraine. The Burkinabe junta has also caveated its position on Russia to maintain good relations with other states by saying it wants to increase cooperation with all other partners, such as the US, and “not necessarily [just] Russia.” 

The Burkinabe coup also threatens counterterrorism* coordination* between Niger and Burkina Faso, which has increased throughout 2022. Niger and other regional partners sanctioned Mali and Guinea following their coups to help expedite a return to civilian rule. A stronger Burkinabe-Russian relationship could also complicate relations with Niger, which hosts American and French troops. However, the Burkinabe junta has so far tried to maintain regional ties by agreeing to uphold a commitment to return to constitutional order by July 2024 and meeting a delegation of regional partners led by a former Nigerien president.

Weak and militarized governance will worsen relations between civilians and the military and help the Salafi-jihadi movement expand in the Sahel. The Malian junta has taken an overly forceful approach to counter militants and has permitted military abuses against civilians. Wagner Group’s presence has exacerbated this trend. Burkinabe coordination with Russian mercenaries would almost certainly increase violence against civilians if it occurred.

Militarized responses to JNIM and ISGS will increase jihadist recruitment and penetration of communities in the Sahel. Both groups have used previous cycles of retribution throughout the Sahel to impose their governance and present themselves as defenders of local communities. These communities have increasingly turned to JNIM and ISGS as they have lost confidence in local or national-level authorities and their allies to provide security. JNIM* and ISGS have already publicly responded to Wagner atrocities to gain legitimacy and brand themselves as local protectors.[1]

Instability in Burkina Faso may aid ongoing JNIM campaigns to consolidate its control of peripheral areas in Burkina Faso. JNIM has been using its havens along the Malian border and in rural Burkina Faso to target key ground lines of communication in western Burkina Faso, which connect the country’s northwest to its second largest city and economic capital, Bobo Dioulasso. The group escalated this campaign in early August, when it attacked* the Tuy provincial capital in Hauts-Bassins region for the first time. JNIM also rapidly* collapsed* the Banwa provincial government* in Boucle du Mouhoun in early September.

Figure 3. JNIM Targets Roads in Western Burkina Faso: AugustSeptember 2022

Note: JNIM is Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen.

Source: Liam Karr.

JNIM is also waging a campaign targeting ground lines of communication in northern Burkina Faso that is in a more advanced stage. The group has cut or severely restricted major roadways, consolidated control over rural areas, and besieged major population centers in northern Burkina Faso’s Sahel region. The persistent siege has forced these towns to the verge of humanitarian disaster and fanned the discontent* among security forces that led to the September coup.

Figure 4. JNIM Besieges Towns in Northern Burkina Faso: AugustSeptember 2022

Note: JNIM is Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen.

Source: Liam Karr.

ISGS is strengthening and could benefit from instability that causes decreased counterterrorism coordination in the tri-border region. ISGS used surveillance drones to coordinate a complex attack in Tessit in northern Mali’s Gao region on August 10, overrunning* the town and killing at least 45 Malian soldiers and officials.[2] ISGS also killed at least 30 civilians and dozens of militants when it overran an anti-ISGS coalition of militia fighters aligned with the Malian government and JNIM fighters in the town of Talataye, nearly 150 miles northeast of Tessit, on September 6.[3] A Malian commander urged* citizens in the surrounding areas to flee on September 15, because militants were going to overtake the areas as there was “no security is there to stop them.” The Malian junta will likely continue to avoid joint operations, while the Burkina coup risks the remaining Nigerien-Burkinabe cooperation in the area.

Figure 5. ISGS Area of Operations in the Sahel as of September 23, 2022

Note: ISGS is Islamic State Greater Sahara.

Source: Liam Karr and Brian Carter.

Worsened security in Burkina Faso will likely enable Salafi-jihadi groups to intensify their expansion into Gulf of Guinea states. Salafi-jihadi groups have intensified attacks in littoral countries since the beginning of 2021. JNIM surged attacks in Côte d’Ivoire in early 2021, attacked* in Benin for the first time in 2021, and claimed first attacks in Togo amid a spike in likely JNIM violence in the country in July 2022. ISGS retroactively announced its presence in the littorals when it claimed two early July 2022 attacks in Benin in a September al Naba publication.[4] Salafi-jihadi groups use their havens in Burkina Faso as key transit points for their cross-border operations into littoral countries. Decreased counterterrorism cooperation and continued security vacuums along Mali and Burkina Faso’s peripheries will allow militants to conduct cross-border operations more easily in these countries.

The Gulf of Guinea states face some of the same internal challenges that Salafi-jihadi groups have capitalized on across the Sahel. The littoral states have been unable to quash incipient Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in their peripheries, although their governments have currently contained the violence on a much smaller scale than in Burkina Faso and Mali. The low-scale insurgencies persist in part due to farmer-herder conflict in the northern parts of the littoral states that create the intercommunal tensions that militants can manipulate. Ivorian security forces have also indiscriminately arrested ethnic Fulani civilians, creating security force abuses for jihadists to exploit. The littoral states have some advantages that may allow them to contain Salafi-jihadi activity. They are more politically stable than Burkina Faso and Mali, have demographic barriers to Salafi-jihadi expansion, and, in some cases, have more positive perceptions of security forces. Long-term militant havens in Burkina Faso will nonetheless challenge its littoral neighbors by facilitating simmering cross-border insurgencies in their sometimes-restive northern regions.  


[1] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Reveals Responsibility for Attacks in Benin, Marking Expansion of ‘Sahel Province’ to Another Country,” September 15, 2022. Available by subscription at www.Siteintelgroup.com.

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Reveals Responsibility for Attacks in Benin, Marking Expansion of ‘Sahel Province’ to Another Country.”

[3] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Reveals Responsibility for Attacks in Benin, Marking Expansion of ‘Sahel Province’ to Another Country.”

[4] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Reveals Responsibility for Attacks in Benin, Marking Expansion of ‘Sahel Province’ to Another Country.”

View Citations

Africa File: Clan Uprising Bolsters anti–al Shabaab Offensive in Central Somalia  

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

To receive the Africa File via email, please subscribe here. 

Key Takeaway: Local tribes in central Somalia are increasingly mobilizing against al Shabaab. Several Hawiye subclans in central and south-central Somalia have mobilized local militias to fight al Shabaab after militants ambushed a humanitarian aid convoy on September 2. The Somali government may also attempt to reconcile with the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a (ASWJ) to bring the group into the counter–al Shabaab fight. Al Shabaab will likely accept losses in central Somalia in the short term. Defeating al Shabaab in central Somalia in the long term will depend on local and federal Somali authorities’ ability to deliver tangible and sustained improvements in governance and security.

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: September 2022

Source: Emily Estelle and Kathryn Tyson.

Clan militias have played a crucial role in supporting the Somali Federal Government’s summer offensive in central Somalia from its outset. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) has waged an offensive against al Shabaab in central Somalia’s Hiraan region for most of the summer. Local Hawadle subclan militias, known as Ma’awisley, helped spur this offensive by attacking* an al Shabaab base on June 1. The Hawadle leaders claimed the attack was revenge for al Shabaab assassinating* a Hawadle elder on May 27. Clan members said* they never received a satisfactory explanation from al Shabaab, which accused the elder of apostasy for participating in Somali elections. The clan said the elder was a “clean Muslim man” and denied he participated in elections. Somali security forces and Hawadle militias went on to clear al Shabaab from at least 23 villages between June and August and claim to have killed at least 100 al Shabaab militants.

Figure 2. Somali Forces Wage Central Somalia Offensive: August 2022

Note: Somali National Army is abbreviated as “SNA.” For map definitions and an interactive map, click here.

Source: Author

The Hawadle are part of the majority Hawiye clan in central Somalia. The Hawiye consists of several subclans distributed across the regions and districts of central Somalia. Clans play a crucial role in Somali politics. Subclan rivalries drive disputes within individual federal member states (FMS), while clan rivalries cause conflict between the SFG and FMS and within the SFG itself. Al Shabaab also strategically uses clan connections to recruit members and arrange favorable agreements in areas it does not outright govern.

Figure 3. Somalia Clan Distribution

Source: Ioan Myrddin Lewis, Peoples of the Horn of Africa (Somali Afar and Saho) (London, UK: Routledge, 2019).  

Al Shabaab initiated an escalatory cycle with the Hawadle militias by targeting Hawadle villagers. Al Shabaab destroyed* water wells and torched homes in several Hawadle villages on August 8. The attacks happened after a relative lull in the anti–al Shabaab offensive throughout much of July and helped spark a renewed urgency from Somali forces and clan militias. Hawadle militias and security forces increased joint* operations* after the attack and cleared at least 17 villages in the Hiraan region in the rest of August. The attacks were also an opportunity for the Somali government to gain local support by organizing humanitarian projects* and local government structures* in affected villages.

Al Shabaab responded to the increased pressure by increasing violence. Al Shabaab fighters ambushed a civilian-operated humanitarian aid convoy overnight on September 2. The attackers killed 21 civilians and destroyed nine trucks. Al Shabaab claimed* that the attack targeted local militia forces, which Somali officials denied. Al Shabaab also threatened* on September 4 to target any clan cooperating with the government, indicating it seeks to make an example of the Hawadle.

The September 2 attack mobilized community-level action against al Shabaab. Hawadle militias continued working with SFG forces to secure more areas of the Hiraan region in the aftermath of the attack, on September 5* and 9.* An unverified video posted on social media on September 5 shows villagers publicly prosecuting a captured al Shabaab militant in an unspecified location in the Hiraan region. Somali government-linked sources also posted pictures of women donating food and milk for troops in Beledweyne.

The September 2 attack also encouraged the Abgal subclan to mobilize against al Shabaab. The leader of the Abgal clan militia promised to cut off and destroy al Shabaab while sending his condolences to the Hawadle on September 10. The Abgal are the dominant Hawiye subclan in the Middle Shabelle region and southern Galgudud and Mudug regions (see Figure 3).[1] SNA and likely Abgal militia forces cleared* al Shabaab from areas near the border of the Hiraan and Middle Shabelle regions on September 12. The operation is the first reported instance of local militias in south-central Somalia participating in counterterrorism activities in 2022. Unverified social media posts also say Abgal and SNA forces attacked al Shabaab militants near the long-time al Shabaab stronghold of Harardhere in southern Mudug region on September 11.

Figure 4. Somali Forces Wage Central Somalia Offensive: September 2022

Note: For map definitions and an area of operations interactive map, click here.

Source: Author.

Al Shabaab attacks on civilians, including the September 2 humanitarian convoy attack, prompted the Habir Gadir, another major Hawiye subclan, to mobilize against al Shabaab. The Habir Gadir are the majority subclan in northern and central Galmudug and Mudug regions. Twitter users and Somali government-affiliated news sites have posted pictures and videos showing Habir Gadir mobilization since at least September 5. Al Shabaab targeted Habir Gadir villages less than 25 miles southwest of Bahdo village in northern Galgudud region on September 1* and 5.*

SNA and Galmudug State forces arrived* in Bahdo on September 11 to train and support locals who had “taken up arms.” The local fighters in Bahdo are already battle-tested, as they helped repel* a large al Shabaab suicide raid in June 2022. The mobilization of the Abgal and Habir Gedir alongside the Hawadle would put much of the Hawiye clan—and thus central Somalia—in open war with al Shabaab.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud may attempt to generate additional forces by convincing the Sufi militia ASWJ to join the fight in central Somalia. Former President Mohamud Abdullahi Mohamud (known as Farmaajo) exacerbated tensions between the Galmudug State government and ASWJ in 2020 when he allegedly rigged* state elections to install a political ally as president. The controversy effectively destroyed a 2017 power-sharing agreement and undermined ASWJ’s political power, leading to clashes* between ASWJ and Somali federal and state security forces in October 2021. ASWJ eventually withdrew* to northern Galgudud region at the end of October 2021 and has remained in that area.

ASWJ and President Mohamud have signaled their willingness to negotiate since Mohamud took office in May 2022. ASWJ leadership said* in early June 2022 that they expect Mohamud to attempt to mediate between the militia and the Galmudug State administration. President Mohamud was reportedly debating* with his cabinet in late August 2022 how to best negotiate between ASWJ and Galmudug State officials. ASWJ has long been one of the most effective forces at combating al Shabaab in central Somalia since al Shabaab’s rise in the late 2000s. ASWJ’s experience, resources, and local support would further bolster the anti–al Shabaab offensive.

The sustained participation of Hawiye militias will improve the long-term viability of the summer offensive. Previous Ma’awisley mobilizations in 2019* and 2020* fizzled after isolated firefights with al Shabaab. The 2022 mobilization has already vastly surpassed previous instances in terms of militias’ engagements with al Shabaab and the number of joint operations between local militias and Somali government forces. The involvement of local militias increases the likelihood that anti–al Shabaab forces will stay to protect cleared villages and deny al Shabaab freedom of movement, resources, and taxation in these areas.

The militias will also enable Somali special forces to target al Shabaab control zones in central Somalia. The militias have proven capable of securing* and clearing* some villages in previous al Shabaab support zones with the help of Somali security forces throughout the offensive. SNA, FMS, and Ma’awisley can continue these operations in areas of lower priority to al Shabaab while special forces put more pressure on al Shabaab–administered areas, which the group will dedicate more resources to protect. US-trained Danab forces attacked Buqaqable on September 15. The Somali government claimed to kill at least 18 al Shabaab militants, while al Shabaab claimed to kill* ten Danab soldiers. Al Shabaab had uncontested control of the village since at least 2015 and had organized drought relief,* religious celebrations,* and public executions in the village throughout 2022.[2]

The clan uprisings in central Somalia could enable the SFG to devote more resources toward targeting al Shabaab strongholds in southern Somalia. President Mohamud told the Somali people to prepare for an “all-out war” on al Shabaab after the group besieged the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu on August 19. Turkish-trained Gorgor commandos and US-trained Danab forces with unconfirmed US drone support have since targeted al Shabaab courts,* financial centers,* and other hideouts* in the districts surrounding Mogadishu. President Mohamud indicated this campaign in southern Somalia will continue when he said that the government will target al Shabaab with bombings, raids, and air attacks while warning Somali citizens on September 14 to avoid al Shabaab areas and courts. Continued local militia support in the Hiraan region would potentially free additional Danab* and Gorgor* units to support this ongoing campaign in the south.

Al Shabaab will have to balance its response in central Somalia alongside its other efforts, which stretch from Kenya to northern Somalia. Al Shabaab has continued attacking* Ethiopian forces near the Somali-Ethiopian border in September, indicating it has continued to resource the area after the peak of its Ethiopia offensive in July 2022. The group also attempted to disrupt elections in the ethnically Somali areas of northeastern Kenya in August by intimidating* Kenyan citizens and attacking* polling stations and ballot transports.*[3] Al Shabaab regularly attacks Kenyan and Ugandan African Union bases inside southern Somalia as part of its effort to expel foreign forces.[4] These campaigns continue alongside suicide* bombings* and raids across Somalia that aim to intimidate and immobilize Somali authorities and security forces.

Al Shabaab is unlikely to surge resources to central Somalia to combat the mobilization. Al Shabaab has not yet seriously contested the offensive and has bloodlessly* retreated* from several villages as security forces advanced. Al Shabaab attacks on security forces in central Somalia largely paused throughout August.[5] The group has increased minor raids* and improvised explosive device attacks* in September, but none of the attacks have been sophisticated in scale or complexity. Al Shabaab would likely be more aggressive and willing to lose fighters contesting counterterrorism advances if it planned to send more resources to the area. This pattern instead indicates that al Shabaab is likely cutting its losses and consolidating its existing resources. This nonconfrontational strategy may also allow it to re-entrench itself in central Somalia in the future if it repairs relationships with the Hawiye and the SFG fails to assert itself by delivering effective governance, including responding to the ongoing drought. 

Al Shabaab may pursue more confrontational strategies in central Somalia in possible but less likely scenarios. Al Shabaab could be consolidating its forces in preparation for a large-scale attack. Al Shabaab will often institute an operational pause or lull before large attacks. There were no reported attacks in the Bakool region in southwestern Somalia for two months before its offensive into Ethiopia, for example.[6] Al Shabaab could alternatively use its limited forces in central Somalia to intimidate or demoralize clan forces by attacking softer and more vulnerable targets. Al Shabaab has attempted to assassinate* the Hiraan regional governor twice* since June 2022. Al Shabaab could also begin targeting clan militia commanders as it did in 2018* and 2020,* or it could double down on retaliatory attacks on civilians. Both potential options would risk inviting greater backlash from the mobilized Hawiye subclans.


[1] Ioan Myrddin Lewis, Peoples of the Horn of Africa (Somali Afar and Saho) (London, UK: Routledge, 2019).  

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims over 35 Troops Killed in 4 Attacks in Kenya, Documents War Spoils Captured During Major Op in Mogadishu,” February 18, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Targets Kenyan Polling Center and Ballot Boxes, Executes Spies for American, Kenyan, and Somali Intel,” August 10, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims at Least 25 Ethiopian Casualties in Multiple Attacks, Concurrent Raids on 8 Military Bases,” August 17, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] Author’s assessment based on Critical Threats Project data.

[6] Author’s assessment based on Critical Threats Project data.

View Citations
TIMELINE
Arrow down red
Jan '23